Yesterday, the New York Times used its front page to deliver a type of story that only the New York Times can properly do—declaring the news, rather than breaking it. It was an account of how closely and pervasively smartphone apps are tracking people’s movements, and how companies make their money by selling the results of that surveillance. This was not new information to anyone who has followed data and privacy questions, but the Times doesn’t have to be the first publication to tell a story, as long as it remembers to go ahead and tell it. Where it stumbles, when it stumbles, is by being equivocal about its conclusions or coy about its own influence.
This time, from the very top, the Times made the facts particular and compelling:
The millions of dots on the map trace highways, side streets and bike trails — each one following the path of an anonymous cellphone user.
One path tracks someone from a home outside Newark to a nearby Planned Parenthood, remaining there for more than an hour. Another represents a person who travels with the mayor of New York during the day and returns to Long Island at night.
Yet another leaves a house in upstate New York at 7 a.m. and travels to a middle school 14 miles away, staying until late afternoon each school day. Only one person makes that trip: Lisa Magrin, a 46-year-old math teacher. Her smartphone goes with her.
In a few quick strokes, the Times sketched out a complete indictment: phone tracking information is deeply personal (Planned Parenthood), indifferent to official security (a person who travels with the mayor), and identifiable (only one person makes the trip). This is precisely what the data harvesters don’t want the public to understand. People consent to vague boilerplate language about marketing research or improved services, and the companies take it as permission to log their every movement, every day.
The excuse for all this is that the data is only useful in bulk or in the aggregate, and that the data sets don’t care or label who the individual data points may be. This is little or no comfort to the data points—the people—themselves, once they know what’s being bought or sold. And the Times made sure to tell them, in detail, tracking individual signals to schools or jobs or medical facilities. What’s routine and invisible stops being routine and invisible when someone marks it all down.